The International Steam Pages

A Garland of Islands, Part 4, Offshore from the American Continents

Robert Hall writes about island railways of the world in a series of articles:

Click here for the other parts:

This section of the “armchair tour” of islands starts on the northerly reaches of the Atlantic coast. (Re this piece, grateful acknowledgements for information, to Steve Hunter.) The 1067mm (3ft. 6in.) gauge had something of a presence in the more-eastern parts of what I will call “British North America” (see onward). 1067mm was virtually absent from the USA, which took to its heart for narrow-gauge lines, the – not all that common worldwide – 914mm (3ft.) gauge. Carl Abraham Pihl of the Norwegian State Railways – first adopter of the 1067mm gauge for public railways, and from the 1860s onward, keen apostle of it for countries beset by tough physical conditions and limited resources – found ready hearers for his gospel, among those involved in railway development in various parts of the British Empire. That applied to some extent (less than elsewhere, in Imperial terms), in British North America. In the context, “Canada” does not accurately cover things: the biggest 1067mm-gauge player in the area was Newfoundland, which until 1949 was not part of Canada, but a separate and distinct British territory – the merger caused strong resentment on the part of many in Newfoundland, and is a sore topic for some even today.

In the “mid / late” 19th century, a certain amount of rail trackage was inaugurated on the 1067mm gauge in the province of Ontario; that, however, was fairly soon widened to the almost-universal 1435mm gauge. “Cape Gauge” came basically to obtain on two islands off the Atlantic coast. Newfoundland, a very large and somewhat marginal sea-surrounded stretch of land with harsh terrain, was where it flourished above all. “At peak” (early 1920s; first line opened 1883) the island had some one-and-a-half-thousand kilometres (sources differ as to the exact total length) of public railways, all 1067mm gauge. The “rail net” was particularly dense at the eastern end of the island, at the tip of which the capital, St. John’s, is located. It is hard not to see all this as a surprisingly extensive and comprehensive rail system for what is – without wishing to seem disrespectful to “Newfies” – a relatively remote and sparsely-populated part of the world.

The island’s main line ran from Port Aux Basques at the western tip (ferry port for sailings to / from North Sydney in “metropolitan Canada”) to St. John’s at the eastern extremity. About 475km “per crow”; the railway took a much longer (874km) route, heading north-east, then east, then south-east. The trunk road which first came to share the railway’s role, and finally to replace and supplant rail completely, follows much the same course. Branch lines took off from various points en route. In the great days of broadly a century ago, the Newfoundland Railway enjoyed wide renown as a very wild-and-woolly, hazardous and harsh-conditions operational venue. A stretch of the main line ran through a particularly exposed and high-altitude area, wondrously “thematically” called the Gaff Topsails, in which trains being blown off the track was far from uncommon. Footplatemen who had worked on the Newfoundland Railway, and then moved on to ply their trade in South America (in this context, itself no place for wimps) were regarded with awe by their colleagues down there.

The Newfoundland rail system had, over the course of its history, a total of well over two hundred steam locomotives; predominantly US-built, but also with contributions from Canadian and British builders. Until some way into the twentieth century, 4-6-0s and 2-8-0s were largely the scene; with Pacifics appearing in strength in the 1920s, and 2-8-2s in the ‘30s and ‘40s. The Canadian National Railways (owners of the Newfoundland system from 1949 on) dieselised it during the 1950s, with steam operation ending late in that decade, and the diesel loco reigning supreme thenceforward.

Newfoundland’s rail system was from its 1883 beginning, long under the aegis of a “railway baron” named Robert G. Reid, and his heirs. Financial losses caused the island’s government to take over the railway’s administration in 1923. This situation continued until Newfoundland’s becoming a part of Canada in 1949, whereon the island’s system entered the hands of the CNR; who for a couple of decades, essentially continued faithfully to run the island’s railway – all-1067mm to the last. Some of the least-useful branch lines presumably perished in the 1950s / 60s. A fairly happy – if basically unremunerative -- scene continued until around the end of the latter decade: busy freight traffic, with some branch passenger activity, and the main-line passenger service between Port aux Basques and St. John’s: the train linking the two was officially named the “Caribou”, but the locals called it informally the “Newfie Bullet”. This passenger working continued until July 1969. Afterward, mixed-train services continued on a short remote section of the main line, and on various branches, until 1983 / 84.

The CNR visibly lost heart as regards its Newfoundland narrow-gauge division, from about the turn of the 1960s / 70s – on the island, letting much freight business pass to road hauliers, and increasingly taking its own freight traffic by road. Measures were passed in Canada in 1987, to deregulate the country’s rail industry, removing many of the legal and administrative obstacles which there had hitherto been, to the rail undertakings’ abandoning of lines. CNR seized gladly on the chance to be rid of the Newfoundland railway – all remaining services ceased in autumn 1988.

A number of locomotives and items of rolling stock are preserved static at various sites in Newfoundland. Two steam locomotives survive in preservation (the island’s first, 0-6-0T no.1 [Hawthorn Leslie, 1881]; and 4-6-2 no.593 [Baldwin, 1920]), and a fair handful of diesel locos. There is a small working preservation venue at Trinity, some 100km north-west of St. John’s -- on the branch to Bonavista, which was active until 1983. This route featured at Trinity, a loop where in order to gain height, the line crossed over itself. About 3km of track, including the “bridge over” part of the loop, is preserved. Trains – diesel-powered and basically “home-made”, contrived mostly from track inspection cars and track maintenance trailers – run “on demand”, in the summer months.

From 1900 to 1948 St. John’s had an electric tram system, also of 1067mm gauge. Sentiments are prompted --similar to those mentioned earlier -- of a degree of surprise at the provision of such, in a perceivedly remote, small-population outpost. Not wishing to appear to condescend toward Newfoundland and Newfoundlanders (who already tend to be the butts of humour on the part of denizens of metropolitan Canada); one could however be a little put in mind of a cold version of Desperate Dan’s home town of Cactusville, in the kids’ comic – a community with all the (rather old-fashioned) trappings of civilisation, in the middle of a raw, harsh wilderness.

British North America’s other scene of 1067mm gauge action of any longevity was Prince Edward Island: several hundred kilometres south-west of Newfoundland, about 150km long, and 50km wide “at broadest”, and separated from the Canadian mainland by a strait mostly 30 / 40km wide – considerably less at its narrowest point. “PEI” is Canada’s smallest province; while reportedly charming, it is as low-lying and unspectacular as Newfoundland is wild, hilly and rugged. PEI’s greatest renown is as a holiday venue; for the top-quality-and-quantity growing of potatoes; and as the location of the 1908 perennial children’s-classic novel “Anne of Green Gables”.

The island was served for well over a hundred years by its own rail network, first section opened in 1874, last section at the beginning of the 1930s. The railway covered the island comprehensively (often by decidedly non-beeline routes), featuring a basic end-to-end main line with a spur into the capital Charlottetown, and branches serving assorted corners. Maximum total route length of system was 448km. The system began its life on the 1067mm gauge, with over the years a total of some fifty steam locos on that gauge, the majority built in Canada but some in Britain and the USA – from small tank locos in the early years, to numerous 4-4-0 tender machines later on, and 4-6-0s in the era around World War I. None seem to have survived – at least, certainly not on PEI.

The island’s rail system came under Canadian government ownership very early in its career; and passed in 1918 to the newly-formed Canadian National Railways. At about this same time, there came the beginning of the end for PEI’s 1067mm gauge, concurrently with improvements in access to the island. A new ferry route, with for the first time vessels capable of carrying rail vehicles, was inaugurated across the narrowest part (some 15km) of the strait, from Cape Tormentine on the mainland, to a new port at Borden. A section of the main line, plus the offshoot to the capital; and a branch which had been revamped to serve Borden; were promptly made mixed 1067mm / 1435mm gauge, to accommodate standard-gauge rolling stock – initially hauled, with appropriate “match” gear, by narrow-gauge locomotives. From approximately 1919 onward, the whole island system was converted to standard gauge only; the last section widened, being the Charlottetown – Murray Harbour line in 1930. As well as freight wagons , passenger stock as part of regular passenger workings travelled on the ferries, from 1919 until the island’s railways became freight-only w.e.f. 1969.

It is understood that during the period when the island’s railways were standard-gauge, and steam, the great majority of services were handled by a couple of then widespread CNR 4-6-0 classes. Their reign was not hugely long: diesel locos were introduced shortly after World War II, and approximately at the end of the 1940s (sources differ as to exact date), PEI became the first province of Canada to achieve total rail dieselisation – in truth, not a very difficult feat, in view of “size and scale”. In diesel days, all workings were loco-hauled; a diesel railcar was tried at one point, but was quickly found unsuitable.

The dramatic rise of private motor transport meant that chronologically, dieselisation was quite rapidly followed by the beginnings of decline for the island’s railways. The casualties were basically “passenger”; and the early stages of the process, in the 1950s, appear to have involved passenger services on some sections being cut back to operating in the winter months only. Passenger workings continued to fade out during the ‘60s: the very last passenger service – in the sadly downfallen form of a mixed train between Charlottetown and Borden -- ceased in 1969. Freight traffic continued for a couple more decades, over virtually the entire system; but with the lines being progressively less used, in the face of road competition, and with the CNR observably losing interest in the undertaking. A close parallel can be seen regarding this sad twilight era, between rail operations in Newfoundland, and PEI – not least, in the CNR’s grabbing the chance offered by rail deregulation being enacted in 1987, to make a quite speedy end of the PEI system; whose last rail freight movements were in the latter half of 1989.

A few items of rolling stock – all standard-gauge – are preserved static at various island locations, as is one of the last generation of the system‘s diesel locos. With more or less all of the network having remained in use until a late date, a very good proportion of its right-of-way has survived, and has been made over into a walkway / cycleway, the “Confederation Trail”, from one end to the other of the island, plus the Charlottetown spur and other branches. At present, some 75% of the system’s original route kilometrage obtains in the form of public recreation trails, with hope for more to be added in the near future. From a railfan point of view, it would have been nice if a (hopefully worthwhile) length of the PEI system had been made the subject of a working-preservation project; but “we can’t always have what we want, and it probably wouldn’t be good for us if we could”. In 1997, a road link – the Confederation Bridge – was opened across the strait to the island, via the Cape Tormentine to Borden crossing.

Have long generally liked what I was aware of about PEI and its railway, without deep acquaintance with the subject. In researching for this article, I was surprised at the revelation of just how long ago the system was standard-gauged. Anyone nowadays with clear memories of the last of the PEI 1067mm gauge in action, would be in their late eighties at least. Objectively, the standard-gauge PE I system – though a pleasantly bucolic and laid-back operation – was perhaps, especially after its early dieselisation, unlikely to be immensely interesting except to those who had known and loved it at first-hand. However, I have a fondness for geographically intricate locations, a description which certainly fits Canada’s Atlantic seaboard. Plus “island magic” doing its usual work. Personally, the PEI set-up rather gives the feel of a counterpart, on a transatlantic scale, of my beloved Isle of Wight as with its railway scene in its heyday; with additionally, map-wise, a small touch of the Rev. Awdry’s Sodor. (A map of the PEI rail system is included at the end of this article.)

Still in Canada, but on the country’s far-opposite side: Vancouver Island, several times the size of PEI but still considerably smaller than Newfoundland -- rugged, mountainous and thickly forested, like the rest of the province of British Columbia of which it forms part. A succession of narrow straits separate Vancouver Island from the mainland. Impression generally got -- at least by a non-North American -- is of a climatically and topographically milder and gentler scene, than storm-and wave-battered Newfoundland.

Vancouver Island has had, and still (just) has public railways; it has always been 1435mm gauge territory. Will admit that my liking for the place railway-wise, is in part stimulated by the wondrously-named-railways factor. Who could resist a part of the world whose foremost line bore the superbly sonorous title of the Esquimalt & Nanaimo Railway? (both places on the undertaking’s main-line route). For convenience, the railway will be called in this piece, the E & N, though in recent times its official title has been subject to change. 

This railway – with its fortunes at present at a low ebb, but thought at the time of writing still to be, by a slim margin, in the land of the living – starts its main line at the island’s capital (in its south-east corner) Victoria, and runs basically north-westward along the island’s east coast, facing across the straits to the mainland. Esquimalt is a little way out of Victoria, Nanaimo the chief town on the way northward. Northern terminus is Courtenay, 225km from Victoria. The line has two short branches. The E & N was opened in stages between 1886 and 1914 (a planned extension north of Courtenay was thwarted by World War I, and never achieved subsequently). At one time, building of a rail bridge between mainland and island was contemplated; but was never in fact undertaken.

From 1905 to 1999, the E & N was owned and operated by the Canadian Pacific Railway, though “trading under” its original name. It has since been known as the Southern Railway Vancouver Island Ltd. – under a regime of assorted owners, operators, and “service providers”. The main line had passenger services ongoingly until March 2011. In their last years, these comprised a once-daily return working between Victoria and Courtenay, operated by Budd diesel railcars (long a mainstay of rural local passenger services in Canada, now rarely encountered outside of preservation venues). Latterly, all was somewhat decrepit and run-down, and the service was losing money heavily; ultimately the condition of the track was judged too poor for the passenger workings to continue safely. It is understood that the line still carries freight, for the rather meagre amount of traffic that offers. There are local hopes, it appears, for funds and initiatives to become available for the passenger service to be reinstated; but the situation would not seem to look highly hopeful. A pity; it is gathered that – as is “standard issue” everywhere in these parts – Victoria to Courtenay is a wonderfully scenic run. As with all railways in Canada, the E & N would have become all-diesel by 1960 at the latest.

The E & N was Vancouver Island’s most prominent, but not only, public passenger railway. (The island has also had many logging railways, with a tiny bit of action on this scene continuing at the time of writing.) Other passenger lines, all 1435mm gauge, were basically in the island’s southern and south-eastern corner, running out from Victoria: a couple of lines (one an electric “interurban”) serving a small suburbanised peninsula due north of the capital, and abandoned the best part of a hundred years ago; and a longer section, under Canadian National Railways ownership, running north-then-south-west toward Sooke, approximately the island’s southernmost location. This CNR line is thought to have lost its passenger services long ago, but to have survived for freight until about the late 1980s – likely, another route abandoned when rail deregulation made that easier to accomplish. There are assorted other islands, some quite large and some not, off Canada’s Pacific coast; but Vancouver Island is the only one to have had public passenger railways.

Much of the trackbed of Vancouver Island’s ex-CNR line has – similarly to what has been done on Prince Edward Island – been made over into a 60-odd-km walkway / cycleway / equestrian route called the “Galloping Goose Trail”. A comical title harking back to an expression widespread in North America in the pre-World War II era. At that time, many railways in Canada and the USA, both standard- and narrow-gauge, attempted to make rural passenger services more efficient and economic by introducing often rather primitive and home-made-looking petrol or diesel railmotors, which frequently were constructed so as to be able to accommodate parcels and light freight items as well as passengers. These devices came to be known by a nickname which apparently caught the public’s fancy throughout the continent: “Galloping Geese”. CNR used, as from quite an early date, such units on its Vancouver Island section – likely enough, while the E & N’s passenger services were still steam-hauled.

The E & N has a counterpart geographically close by, on the British Columbia mainland – a local system which (a rather rare thing with railways in Canada) has always been characterised by a strong identity of its own, distinct from the twin Canadian National and Canadian Pacific “octopi”. This is BC Rail Ltd., formerly British Columbia Railway: 1435mm gauge of course, heading northward from North Vancouver (across an inlet of the sea from Vancouver city proper) and nowadays covering very wide tracts of mainland British Columbia, in much magnificent and wild country, with connections with the wider Canadian rail network. The BCR has been freight-only since 2002, except for a local passenger service over a short section a considerable way north of Vancouver.

This railway underwent a radical “personality change” in the latter half of the twentieth century. From opening of its first section in 1912, to the 1950s: the railway was a purely local concern, existing in physical isolation -- for most of that stretch of time running from Squamish, 62km north of Vancouver, a couple of hundred kilometres generally northward, to the equally obscure location of Quesnel. And in this era, the railway had a weird-and-intriguing title to rival the Esquimalt & Nanaimo: it was called the Pacific Great Eastern Railway. A name with no geographical significance (one can indeed not get much further west in Canada) – it originated from the railway’s genesis being owed to financial backing by Britain’s Great Eastern Railway, or associates thereof. 

For quite a number of years, regular steam tourist workings ran on the British Columbia Railway between North Vancouver and Squamish, hauled by preserved 4-6-4 no.2860, of the Canadian Pacific’s impressive “Royal Hudson” express passenger class. “To best of knowledge”, this operation no longer takes place.

From one Pacific coast location, to another a good few thousands of kilometres to the south: Chiloe Island, off the coast of southern Chile. In size and shape, the island somewhat resembles Prince Edward Island very far away; with one short narrow stretch of strait separating it from the mainland (not hugely far from Puerto Montt, Chile’s southernmost mainland rail terminal), and for the rest, a more extensive, considerably wider sound between island and continent. (Chiloe is South America’s second-largest island, ranking only after Tierra del Fuego in size.)

Chiloe would have been of interest, even if always rail-less. Its inhabitants have long had a reputation as tough, rough-and-ready “frontiersmen” types, prepared and eager to travel all over mainland Chile in search of seasonal labour. Furthermore, the island is reputedly Chile’s pre-eminent place for “high strangeness” and spooky doings – this celebrated in many stories of local sorcery and trafficking with the occult, and of strange beings manifesting themselves. A rather splendid 600mm gauge public railway on top of all this, might seem excessive; but the railway indeed existed, for not quite half a century.

Chile’s state railway system has always basically been of 1672mm (5ft. 6in.) gauge in the south, and metre gauge in the north; but the country also boasted for around the first half of the twentieth century, a small handful of shortish 600mm gauge public local lines (all believed now defunct) – including that on Chiloe, Chile’s only island public railway. This line was 98km in length, running essentially south-to-north in the northern half of the island, paralleling its east coast at a considerable distance. The island’s terrain is hilly and rugged, though the hills do not reach a great height: however, steep gradients, tortuous track, and several big bridges were needed to put the line through, between the island’s two main towns, both on the coast: Castro in the south to Ancud in the north, with a short extension beyond Ancud to Lechagua. The route throughout, was opened in 1912; projects for further extensions to the island’s system, came to nothing.

The Chiloe railway was unfortunately not a great commercial success – a situation which was contributed to, by the topographical necessity of making the route a basically inland one through sparsely populated country, rather than along the more populous east coast of the island. Passenger business was fairly brisk until road motor competition set in seriously, from about the mid-1940s; freight (more timber was carried, than any other commodity) never prospered to the extent originally hoped. Early in the line’s existence, separate freight trains may have run; for the majority of its life, though, mixed trains – several of which ran per week – sufficed for the freight traffic. Between the World Wars there were introduced on the line, internal-combustion railmotors (somewhat crude-looking vehicles, from the photographs). With these units available, a more-or-less daily passenger service became possible: in a situation of steam mixeds only, usually three or four return workings per week were the maximum that could be achieved. Steam-hauled trains managed the run between Castro and Ancud in about five hours, railmotors in about three.

With this island being rather a place of mystery, it would seem appropriate that there is a certain mysteriousness about details of steam locomotive types used on its railway. The line’s demise was essentially too early (1960) for railway enthusiasts to “discover” it and carefully record their findings (C. S. Small reached many out-of-the-way places, but clearly never made it to Chiloe). It is known that to work Chile’s 600mm gauge lines, tank locos of several classes were ordered from a variety of German builders – Jung, Orenstein & Koppel, Henschel, and Hanomag – comprising the 0-6-2T, 0-6-0T, and 0-4-0T wheel arrangements. The most prominent and numerous type would seem to have been a class of Jung 0-6-2Ts (State Railways class a), members of which photographs plainly show in use on Chiloe. The picture is got, that locos of various types were frequently and quite casually swapped-and-switched between the Chilean state railways’ several 600mm gauge sections -- those on the mainland, and the Chiloe line. At this distance in time, and with the lack of detailed records, there would seem no chance of pinning down with great accuracy, what locos worked on Chiloe when. From what can be gleaned; at the time of closure, class a 0-6-2Ts nos. 5039 and 5060 were in service on Chiloe. Other locos were possibly also present there at that time. Also reported to have seen use on Chiloe, were two 0-6-2Ts by Davenport, USA – contractors’ locos for building of the line, probably later taken over by the State Railways as class d. Other locomotives reported on Chiloe during the line’s working life; class a no. 5025, Henschel class b 0-6-0T no. 5057. Photographs show bogie passenger coaches on the Chiloe line: quite neat-looking jobs – but as “goes with the territory” on the 600mm gauge, impossible to make particularly roomy. 

By the late 1950s, the Chiloe railway was flagging under intense road competition, and in rather poor repair. Abandonment was promulgated w.e.f. March 3rd 1959; but the line still had a certain number of regular patrons, who protested vehemently at this move. Local politics became turbulent about the matter, and the railway staggered on in some degree of use – possibly not with great regularity any more – for a little while longer. The end came conclusively and tumultuously on May 22nd 1960, with the tremendous earthquake which took place on that date, with its epicentre at Valdivia, central Chile. Chiloe was outside the area of maximum damage; but the railway suffered a large amount of collateral harm, with damaged bridges, collapsed cuttings, and flooding of considerable stretches owing to the rising of the sea level which occurred. This was, with great certainty, the coup de grâce to the in any case moribund railway; which never ran again, and was dismantled over the following year or so. Sadly, there is no room for speculation along the lines of “if it had not been for that dratted earthquake, the Chiloe narrow gauge might still be here to delight us today”. The line was at its last gasp already: 1912 – 1960, R.I.P.

(Robert would like to thank Ian Thomson Newman in Chile for some additional information on the locomotives of the Chiloe narrow gauge.)

Further resources:

The Newfoundland Railway is remembered with great affection and there are some very interesting resources on YouTube. Googling "Exploring the Newfoundland Railway" leads to and Following these links which cover the railway today exhaustively would take a long time. For the railway in the good old days check out “Newfoundland Railway: Carbonear to St. John’s, 1973”. Also worth checking out are "Tales of the Newfoundland Railway”: and “Tribute to the Newfoundland Railway” -

On the west coast "Vancouver Island’s Railway Legacy" - and "Southern Vancouver I. Railway – Cars 02/ VIA Rail Dayliner" There are a series of videos on board a train here, eg "Inside the cab of a BCRail train on a 2.2% grade in the Cheakamus Canyon" - and Soak up as much as you want, there's plenty more!

Finally the Railways of the Far South deserves a plug, it's a wonderful site, start from, most of the information on Chiloe was derived from it.

A map of the Prince Edward Island system:

Rob Dickinson